Perilous Powder: Asbestos in Cosmetics Causes Lung Cancer
by Amanda Starbuck, 11/6/2014
When people think of asbestos, they may envision trained workers in hazmat suits removing asbestos insulation from older buildings. What many people don’t realize is that asbestos is still used in a variety of consumer products ranging from clothing to floor tiles. A recent peer-reviewed study found asbestos in one brand of talcum powder and linked its use to a woman’s death from lung cancer. The study sheds light on the weakness of federal chemical regulations that have failed to protect consumers from this cancer-causing toxin.
Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber found in certain rock formations and soils. It was mined extensively in the 20th century and used in a variety of consumer products. However, asbestos exposure is linked to lung disease, including a rare and deadly lung cancer called mesothelioma. The identification of health risks from asbestos in the 1960s initiated a series of bans in the 1970s covering the use of asbestos in insulation and many other construction products.
However, asbestos can occur naturally in talc, a soft mineral used in many baby powders and makeup. This led a team of researchers to examine whether consumers using talc products can be exposed to asbestos and whether this exposure could cause mesothelioma.
Researchers tracked asbestos-contaminated talc from the mines to a talcum powder product, and then into the lung tissue of a woman who had died of asbestos-caused mesothelioma after years of using the product. They confirmed that the powder contained traces of asbestos. Additionally, they demonstrated the potential for significant asbestos exposure when the talcum powder is used as directed. They had a test subject wearing protective gear apply talcum powder to his upper body in a sealed room about the size of a bathroom. Air filters used in the test chambers consistently collected high levels of inhalable asbestos, and the researchers found that the risk of exposure increases when talcum powder is applied in small, closed spaces (like bathrooms).
Other researchers examined the body of a mesothelioma victim who had used this brand of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder. They found asbestos fibers in her lungs and lymph nodes, concluding that she likely developed mesothelioma through using the talcum powder. They suggested that other mesothelioma cases may be linked to the use of this same product.
Today, when construction workers encounter asbestos insulation in older buildings, they must follow specific safety regulations for its removal in order to prevent exposure. Unfortunately, no such safeguards exist to protect consumers who unknowingly encounter asbestos in everyday products.
We lack these protections because the United States has not issued a comprehensive ban on asbestos. In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rulemaking to phase out most uses of asbestos. The agency used its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which grants EPA the power to test and regulate chemicals in use. Unfortunately, industry challenged this rulemaking in the courts on the grounds that it was overly burdensome to businesses, and it was overturned in 1991. The result is a patchwork of asbestos bans that covers insulation and new uses but grandfathers in many other uses.
Furthermore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with overseeing cosmetics but has limited authority. Unlike drugs and medical devices, the FDA cannot require cosmetics to be tested before coming to market. This enables asbestos-containing cosmetics to appear on store shelves without the FDA’s knowledge – and without any warnings to the public. And a recent investigation revealed that the FDA is aware of the potential for talc to contain asbestos but is not adequately investigating the dangers.
Over 50 countries have successfully banned asbestos in manufacturing or imports. The U.S. is one of the only developed nations without a comprehensive ban on asbestos. We need to improve our chemical policies so that they can protect consumers from harm.
These policy changes must include strengthening the Toxic Substances Control Act so that EPA can fulfill its mandate to regulate toxic chemicals. In the nearly 40 years since the law was passed, EPA has tested less than 300 of the more than 84,000 chemicals on its inventory, and restricted the use of just nine. A deadly substance like asbestos with no safe level of exposure should not be able to fall through the regulatory cracks.
Second, the FDA must investigate asbestos in talcum powder and other talc products and remove any that contain asbestos from the market. The aforementioned study focused on exposure to adults using talcum powder on their upper bodies. The FDA must study the full range of use for talc products (from makeup to feminine hygiene products) and what unique exposure routes these uses represent. Furthermore, given talc’s prevalence in baby powder, the agency should also focus attention on the risks it poses to infants and children.
Steps like these can help keep potentially hazardous products out of our homes and reduce the 10,000 American lives lost each year to asbestos exposure.